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Wisconsin senators

Sen. Luther Olsen, right, R-Ripon, followed by Sen. Shelia Harsdorf, R-River Falls, leave the Senate chambers in this file photo. 

Wisconsin Democrats are criticizing Republican senators for a 2013 vote that would have given lead paint manufacturers retroactive immunity from lawsuits filed by people sickened by their product, after learning a prominent manufacturer boosted efforts to keep them in office.

Republicans pushed back on allegations of any quid pro quo arrangement, arguing they didn't directly receive money from the groups that would have benefited from the legislation.

Senate Minority Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, chastised Republican Sens. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, and Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, on Wednesday, after the Guardian U.S. published a story based on leaked documents from a John Doe probe into Gov. Scott Walker's campaign and conservative groups that supported him during his 2012 recall election.

The report links their votes on the Legislature's powerful budget committee in 2013 to campaign donations made to the Wisconsin Club for Growth — a group that supported the senators when they were targeted in recall elections — by Harold Simmons, the owner of one of the United States' leading producers of lead used in paint until it was banned.

In 2013, the Joint Finance Committee inserted a provision into the budget aimed at blocking lawsuits against the lead paint industry. There are 171 ongoing lawsuits against companies like Simmons' NL Industries seeking compensation for children sickened by lead paint.

That provision was part of the 2013-15 budget's "999 motion," a document that is traditionally full of wish-list items for legislators and special interests and often introduced and passed in the middle of the night or early in the morning.

Simmons made three donations to the Wisconsin Club for Growth totaling $750,000 during the period during which Republicans including Walker, Olsen and Harsdorf faced recall elections. 

In a statement, Shilling said that both Olsen and Harsdorf used their positions on the committee "to push through controversial changes in 2013 that shielded lead paint manufacturers after receiving secret financial help in their 2011 campaigns."

"We knew Gov. Walker was at the center of this ‘criminal scheme’ to coordinate efforts with dark money special interest groups," Shilling said in a statement. "What we didn’t know was how closely Senate Republicans worked with these special interests and how favors were doled out to lead paint manufacturers that bankrolled these secret campaign efforts. These new documents clearly highlight a disturbing pay-to-play scheme between out-of-state lead paint manufacturers and Senate Republicans."

Federal courts have since overturned most of the changes regarding immunity for lead manufacturers outlined in the Wisconsin law.

Olsen, currently in the midst of a re-election campaign, disputed Shilling's "pay-to-play" allegation. 

"I think that's quite a jump," he said.  "I voted for something in the budget and somebody else got some money ... that's not pay-to-play."

A Harsdorf aide did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Guardian U.S. report notes a series of occasions in which Walker appeared to solicit donations not for his campaign or for the Republican senators' campaigns, but for the Wisconsin Club for Growth. 

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The leaked documents include an August 2011 email with talking points provided for Walker by Wisconsin Club for Growth and Walker adviser R.J. Johnson.

“Our efforts were run by Wisconsin Club for Growth ... who coordinated spending through 12 different groups. Most spending by other groups was directly funded by grants from the Club," Johnson wrote, celebrating the Senate seats Republicans held onto that summer.

Assembly Democrats made note of the Guardian U.S. report’s headline, “Because Scott Walker asked,” in a Wednesday news conference responding to the report.

That note was written on the memo line of a check for $10,000 written by financier G. Frederick Kasten, Jr. to the Wisconsin Club for Growth.

“It raises so many questions about what they asked for in return and what they may have been provided in return,” said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, of the contributions given to Wisconsin Club for Growth that appeared to have been solicited by the governor.

Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, said the leaked documents give the appearance that there is “more payback than policy that’s being reflected in our statutes.”

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Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.